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Liner may have dumped oily water, reports say

Records from Holland America's Noordam are being investigated to find if bilge water was illegally dumped on trips out of Tampa.

By STEVE HUETTEL
Published April 14, 2004

TAMPA - Federal agencies are investigating reports that a Holland America Lines cruise ship illegally dumped oily water during Caribbean cruises from Tampa this year.

Holland America notified U.S. government officials last month that a chief engineer admitted to "improperly processing" bilge water on the Noordam, according to a report filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission last week by the cruise line's parent company, Carnival Corp.

The cruise line and three engineers received subpoenas from the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa to testify before a federal grand jury, the report stated.

An internal investigation by Holland America found the "improper operation" may have started in January and continued sporadically through March 4, the day before the company reported it, Carnival said. There was no information about where the alleged discharges took place.

Steve Cole, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa, said he could not comment on grand jury matters. Holland America officials did not respond to telephone and e-mail inquiries for comment.

However, Coast Guard and federal Environmental Protection Agency investigators interviewed crew members and combed through records on the Noordam on March 14 when the ship returned to Tampa from a 14-day cruise, said Lt. Scott Muller of the Coast Guard's Marine Safety Office in Tampa.

Coast Guard officials in San Juan, Puerto Rico, received information that the ship had released oil in U.S. waters and asked their counterparts in Tampa to investigate, he said. "I know the EPA collected evidence for possible criminal violations" and may have passed it to federal prosecutors, Muller said. He declined to discuss details because the investigation is still active.

Holland America pleaded guilty to federal pollution charges in 1998 for dumping oily bilge water off the Alaskan coast four years earlier and for not keeping records of the discharges. The Seattle-based company agreed to pay a $2-million fine and be placed on five years' probation.

In 2002, Carnival Corp. pleaded guilty to six felony counts related to dumping oily discharges in the Caribbean and seas off Florida between July 1998 and January 2001. The company paid an $18-million fine and agreed to set up an environmental compliance department.

Those convictions weren't for the illegal dumping, but for lying about it on records presented to the Coast Guard.

Bilge water is water from condensation mixed with oil, metal shavings and other debris in ship bottoms. Crews must run the mixture through a cleaning machine and then an oil content meter, which sets off an alarm if the water entering the discharge system contains too much oil.

Cruise ships are required to record any treatment and release of tainted water in an oil record book for review by the Coast Guard. The Noordam's book was among the documents investigators looked at last month, Muller said. Large and small cruise lines alike have been caught dumping waste. Royal Caribbean once fitted a ship with a pipe to release bilge water without running it through an oil separator. The company pleaded guilty and paid a $27-million fine for multiple violations in 1999.

"The industry claims this is a thing of the past," said Kira Schmidt of the environmental group Bluewater Network, based in San Francisco. "But they all use the ocean as a dumping ground. It's despicable."

- Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.

[Last modified April 14, 2004, 01:05:41]

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